October 30, 2015
I witnessed what appeared to be a defining moment the other night, when Sam Hunt shut down part of downtown Nashville, hosted a free show, played 90 thrilling minutes, mixed things up a little and slayed it a lot -- as if to say, "I'm here, I'm a star, you'd better deal with me."
And while we're defining things, Webster's Oxford American dictionary calls the word, party, "a social gathering of invited guests." While technically, Hunt's show Wednesday night (10/28) was labeled a street "party," the term "social gathering" doesn't quite do the event justice.
Nope, this was closer to an extravaganza or better yet, a freakin' BASH, as 10,000 fans -- an estimate which may or may not be low -- crammed themselves onto 5th Avenue between Demonbreun and Korean War Vets Blvd. in downtown Nashville for the BOSE-sponsored "pop-up" show. Just curious: When was the last time 10,000 of YOUR closest friends "popped up" for a "social gathering?" That was a rhetorical question, because I know the answer. How about, never.
Hunt launched into his longer-than-usual set with a blazing version of "Raised On It" from his Gold-plus-selling "Montevallo" album, which was released one year and one day ago to this show. Originally set for Tuesday (10/27), the concert was pushed back a day due to rain. Wednesday's weather was perfect, and the crowd -- many of whom drove in from neighboring states -- was perfectly versed in every word to every song Hunt performed, as his set leaned heavily on the "Montevallo" album.
But Hunt is a prolific and successful songwriter too, who has penned hits for Kenny Chesney ("Come Over"), Keith Urban ("Cop Car"), and Billy Currington ("We Are Tonight"). He provided his unique renditions of these songs -- in addition to "I Met A Girl," the debut single from Warner Music Nashville's traditional newcomer William Michael Morgan, also written by Hunt but arranged completely different. He also put together an acoustic Women Of The '90s mash-up, saluting songs of Reba, Trisha Yearwood, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Destiny's Child, Bonnie Raitt and Deana Carter. If his good looks, charm, and ripped physique hadn't already endeared him to every female in the crowd, surely a tribute to these ladies sealed the deal. So did the guest appearance from a real-live lady -- Arista Nashville's Cam -- who joined Hunt for a duet on her smash single, "Burning House," which the crowd also already knew by heart.
The show was a high-voltage coming-out party for Hunt and his tight three-man unit, who managed to keep the energy and volume cranked for the entire 90 minutes -- especially when the newly-shaven Hunt took a victory lap around the block, high-fiving anyone and everyone in range of his long, chiseled arms. In his opening sets during Lady Antebellum's tour this year, Hunt has been limited to 30 minutes, which essentially means crank out the hits, showcase the album and try to get the crowd into it. Hunt accomplished all those and then-some, but when you extend yourself for another hour beyond that, you have to demonstrate an ability to change gears, show different sides to your artistic personality, and even converse a little. It's more or less a variety show, and not every artist can make that shift. Hunt proved worthy of the task and on a big stage -- the streets of Nashville, with a crowd -- albeit a partisan one -- that was open to his many different sides.
Déjà vu All Over Again
I have seen this movie before, and it's a thrilling one: That moment when you're at a live show, the artist is on a roll, connecting with fans, and everything seems to be clicking. Suddenly the light goes on: Hey! This artist is a freakin' star.
As an example, in spring of 1987, Randy Travis had just released his second album, "Always & Forever," with the lead single, "Forever & Ever Amen" quickly climbing the charts. He played a massive, two-day, free "CountryFest" show in Los Angeles that was attended by an estimated 100,000 fans. A lot of us lifers in the format know that "Forever & Ever Amen" was the career record for Travis and went on to be one of the best-testing gold titles at radio into the early to mid-2000s.
I saw one of Travis' first live performances of this song at that festival; combined with material from his first album, "Storms of Life," which sold three million copies, and the new one, I have always maintained his performance at this event christened Travis as a true, next-level superstar. You could feel it. His confidence onstage was incredible -- much stronger than a year earlier, when he was a last-minute opener for George Strait at the Wiltern Theater in downtown Los Angeles and lacked moxy. A year later, the fans felt it too; there was real electricity and magic in the air at Travis' outdoor set.
I know some of you who are new to our format will say, "Randy Travis? That guy who had a stroke?" Yeah -- that guy. He was not yet 30 then, and was leading an important neo-traditional movement for the format that would later set the table for the class of 1989 and the ensuing '90s boom for Country. The New York Times had declared Country music dead two years earlier, and here was Travis -- an unknown Country singer -- seemingly coming out of nowhere with a triple-Platinum album featuring traditional Country music that even non-Country fans were swooping up. It should be noted that Travis wasn't the lone ranger in this movement, as important records from Dwight Yoakam ("Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc") and Steve Earle ("Guitar Town") were also part of that neo-traditional wave. But Travis was the bigger star.
Yeah -- THAT Randy Travis. He was a big deal then -- you might even say Randy Travis was the shit. He was the Sam Hunt of his day; young and hunky, zigging while others zagged, having unlikely #1s that on the front end, made programmers nervous to play. The format wasn't really dead at the time, but the NY Times was correct in that Country was in a down cycle, musically. Playlists were made up of very soft AC and passive-sounding songs. So Travis, coming with hard core, by God, Country music was daring, different -- and necessary.
Just days after his pivotal performance at LA's CountryFest, Travis would go on to claim ACM trophies for Male Vocalist, Album (for "Storms Of Life") and Single (for "On The Other Hand") of the Year. So, yes, he was already a "star," but "Forever & Ever, Amen" would be a massive #1 single, and the album "Always And Forever" would go on to yield four total #1 songs and out-sell "Storms Of Life" by nearly a two-to-one margin. That's impressive, because as I just said, "Storms" sold three million copies. From that one-week moment in '87, Travis began occupying some rare air.
There are many other examples of the same, next-level thing happening; two immediately come to mind: Garth Brooks unveiling "Friends In Low Places" at CRS in 1990; Tim McGraw becoming an overnight star -- also at CRS -- when he debuted "Don't Take The Girl" at the New Faces Show.
Somebody asked me the day after Hunt's street party, "Will we be able to keep him in Country?" His music pushes -- hell, bursts -- the musical envelope for this format, absolutely. But so far, it's been working in the current wild, wild West Country music climate, as three consecutive #1 songs will attest. Who really knows, but maybe the answer is: It depends on his second album and where it goes, sonically. But here's what many people also say about Hunt's music, and I totally agree -- lyrically, every song on "Montevallo" is Country as hell. These are story songs about breakups, hookups, and small town stuff. Hunt himself said basically every song on the album was inspired by a failed relationship and more or less thanked his ex on stage Wednesday night.
Country programmers and listeners have a big say in this, too. I do hear some PDs say his latest single, "Break Up in A Small Town," is over the line, even by Hunt's standards. But after we saw "Take your Time" -- which also features a large dose of spoken word and some R&B touches -- become a killer callout record, why is "Break Up" suddenly so out of bounds? And don't three consecutive #1s off an album nearing Platinum status earn him some equity?
Similar to Travis' week-later, triple-win ACM success to his coming-out party back in '87, another victory lap may follow next week for Hunt. He's nominated for three CMA Awards: New Artist of the Year, Single of the Year, and Song of the Year. Lord only knows what kind of pop-up party will ensue if he wins all of them.